It was perhaps the writer and journalist Arthur Hopcraft who got closest to the heart of the visceral appeal of our national game. In The Football Man, published two years after England won the World Cup in 1966, Hopcraft wrote: “What happens on the football field matters, not in the way that food matters but as poetry matters to some people and alcohol to others: it engages the personality.”
Last May, the billionaire owners and hedge fund opportunists behind the ill-fated European Super League (ESL) project found this out for themselves. The six most powerful clubs in the Premier League, shamelessly intent on defecting to a global sporting cartel, ignited a fans’ revolt of passionate intensity. Boris Johnson, not a football follower but a politician who knows how to read the signs of the times, found the right register of response: “These clubs, these names,” he said, “originate from famous towns and cities in our country.” They should not be “dislocated” from these places “without any reference to fans and to those who have loved them all their lives”. The Premier League took its place alongside Mr Johnson as a champion for careful stewardship of the people’s game.
For a sport routinely accused of losing its moral compass in the age of stratospheric salaries, dubious owners and overmighty “superclubs”, this was a gratifyingly romantic episode. But it suddenly seems a long time ago. The sportswashing takeover of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund – chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – has once again laid bare the extent to which 21st-century elite football has become a vehicle for the amoral pursuit of wealth, influence and glory at any price. The Saudi state’s murderous approach to political dissidence, vicious persecution of homosexuals and restriction of women’s rights are well documented. But the takeover has been waved through enthusiastically by the government, the Premier League, local politicians and the vast majority of the team’s fanbase. Those concerned about a drop in moral standards may, or may not, be reassured by the news that in December, Newcastle, along with other Premier League clubs, will participate in Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign to promote diversity and equality.
The contrast with the great spring rebellion is telling. While the ESL concept was inimical to vested interests, which risked losing control of English football’s star assets, the Newcastle takeover will add another star-studded superclub to the richest league in the world. The government – and Newcastle city council – hope that Saudi money will deliver knock-on regeneration effects in the north-east, as in Manchester following the Abu Dhabi takeover of Manchester City. Newcastle United supporters are giddy at the prospect of trophies and glory, after spending so long in the doldrums during the dismal Mike Ashley era.
“RIP to the beautiful game”, as one anti-ESL placard had it last spring. But in truth, lax governance long ago turned the top of the English game into a carnival of greed vulnerable to carpetbaggers, oligarchs and, increasingly, sportswashing states. The review into the future of football set up in the summer and chaired by the former sports minister Tracey Crouch is an opportunity to reset. Ms Crouch is likely to call for greater powers and control for fans’ groups and a new regulator role to address issues of financial sustainability. These would be steps in the right direction, but a football regulator’s remit should also contain an ethical dimension, with powers to block takeovers, such as that at Newcastle, if they are deemed to bring the game into disrepute. The passions of a tribal world, central to the life and self-image of the nation, are being unscrupulously exploited for the wrong reasons.Internet Explorer Channel Network